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March 3, 2021

Glamour Portraits of Jean Harlow Taken by William Mortensen for ‘Hell’s Angels’ (1930)

An exquisite Jean Harlow photographed by famous Pictorialist William Mortensen to promote Hell’s Angels (1930). These images date to late 1929, but were released in conjunction with the film. She’s all of nineteen in these portraits, and exudes such a wistful quality.

Mortensen was one of a handful of photographers Jean sat for during this time period—New York’s White Studio and Preston Duncan also made popular portraits of her, which made their way into magazines and artwork for the film.

By the time these photographs were made, Pictorialism, with its fuzzy contours and overt print manipulation, had fallen out of favor among avant-garde photographers, who insisted instead on “straight photography” as the purest expression of their medium.

William Mortensen, rejected by modernists as hopelessly retrograde, steadfastly practiced Pictorialist techniques for the duration of his career, maintaining Steichen’s position of twenty years earlier––that frank artifice in photographs was key to their success as works of art.


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